Saturday, 12 September 2009

Colony in Space

Previous viewings - none

It's the story that heralds a return to time and space... but Colony in Space isn't a return to anything else we're familiar with. In fact, there's as much new here as there was in the first UNIT story: it's the first of the Earth Empire subset of stories that seem to crop up a lot in the Pertwee era, it's among the first to give us a future setting but make the primary threat to the human protagonists in the story other humans rather than aliens, who sit on the sidelines until near the end (it is written by Malcolm Hulke after all). Sad to say, it's also one of the first to have a rather tedious premise.

The Doctor is showing Jo the TARDIS when the Time Lords whisk them away to the planet Uxarieus, much to the Brig's surprise. It's a great start the story never quite lives up to - we get a glimpse of the Time Lords discussing the Master and a doomsday weapon, which seems to promise some scope to the adventure which never materialises, and for the first time in what seems like forever we have a companion reacting to the TARDIS. Jo is unique in that she’s experiencing the rite of passage that all new companions experience, but she’s not a new companion. We already know her, and we’ve seen the world she occupies – sure it’s fantastic, but the Doctor’s been there to guide her and she understands him, and that’s enough. It’s only when what she thought she knew about him is thrown into doubt that she gets scared. The marathon also puts into context the Doctor’s frustrations at Jo wanting to deprive him of his first visit to an alien planet in ages, and how he feels at conceding after a quick look around. So I get both viewpoints, and a good idea of the warmth between the characters.

I'm too used the convention of Doctor Who plot unfolding to hold the action-free first episode against the story. In the UNIT era, this has become a rare convention, so how do viewers feel when episode after episode ticks by and the story remains focused on dialogue and a dispute over land? Certainly, Colony in Space seems somewhat ashamed of itself, with the first two cliffhangers featuring what looks like a monster but what turns out to be a mining robot.

Fortunately it establishes a strong set of characters, with some old faces from old stories turning up, not that I’d ever have realised it without looking at the cast credits because they’re a capable bunch; the group we’re introduced to first are the colonists, who came to the planet a year ago but have had difficulty farming the area. John Ringham plays Ashe, leader of the colonists, who is intelligent but determined man who is instinctively non-aggressive and accepts the Doctor’s aid. He doesn’t get to do much but he’s a sympathetic character and has an everyman quality that means we’re on his side. Also at the colony are the obligatory more aggressive one Winton, who fills his role but does little more, and Mary Ashe, who is someone for Jo to befriend, at least at the start, although the presence of Gail from Corrie takes me right out of the story whenever she appears.

While investigating two deaths, the Doctor encounters Caldwell, who works for the IMC mining company who have arrived on the colony to mine it. The Doctor quickly determines that the miners have been trying to scare the colonists away. Apart from the benevolent Caldwell, none of the miners come to life as characters, serving only to throw a spanner in the works to facilitate the plot.

Then there’s the Primitives, cheap-looking aliens who live in a tacky city... but coming after the Axons they certainly do their job fine by comparison. At least the aliens are a good idea – a faded empire whose secrets lie in their city, but who themselves have turned into lobotomised, silent drones. For all its faults in the realisation, it stands as an interesting contrast to the rest of the story but somehow also fits right in. The tiny one is creepy though. The Doctor makes a brief trip there to rescue Jo, and they’re allowed to leave on condition they never return.

The story gets a well-needed shock moment when the Adjudicator arrives to decide which of the Earth parties has the right to stay on the planet, and it’s the Master! (Something that would have been a lot more surprising if the Master wasn’t a series regular and his presence hadn’t been mentioned in the teaser.) Any reason for Roger Delgado to show up is fine by me, and at least here it’s in a totally different setting from the norm, and he gets plenty of scenes with the Doctor. For the first time, we see the inside of the Master’s TARDIS, and it’s just like the Doctor’s except with more equipment in the control room. It might be foolhardy to treat the Master as a real character and not a caricature, but while writing can sometimes let the side down I think that Delgado has shown that he can at least keep the Master above panto villain level (no easy task, I’m sure), keeping him a credible threat and a man who, while clearly insane, doesn’t show it by putting on a performance.

When the Master rules in favour of the miners, and pretends to be interested in helping Ashe with his appeal, on the basis that the presence of the primitive city makes the planet a place of historical interest that shouldn’t be mined of its natural resources. The Master forces the Doctor to accompany him to the city, with Jo trapped inside the Master’s TARDIS and able to be killed at the touch of a button. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the last couple of episodes are fast-paced, but they do deliver more tension and excitement than the previous four. We finally get a battle between the colonists and the miners, and the Master outlines his plan to access the dormant doomsday weapon left by the civilisation on Uxarieus, as he hopes to use it to rule the cosmos. I know this is usual Master stuff, but Delgado’s restrained performances seem at odds with the more insane speeches he is required to give. It’s a good moment for the Doctor though as he is delighted when the lead primitive decides that the weapon should be destroyed so the Master isn’t able to follow through his plan.

While this is happening, we’re led to believe that the colonists, having been forced to leave by head miner Dent, have tried to take off in their ship but blown up. This was a great plot point as it briefly made me believe that the writer had done something very daring – but when it turned out that Ashe had sacrificed himself it wasn’t a disappointment. The plot resolves itself very neatly, with the colonists overpowering the IMC men in a surprise attack, and the future looking bright for them with the destruction of the city that was responsible for their crops failing.

Colony in Space isn’t without its faults – it’s still quite a slow-paced story that however diverting isn’t actually about anything interesting – but coming after eight UNIT stories in a row, watching it as part of a marathon is a joy. True, the Master shows up yet again, but the story would have suffered if he hadn’t. All you need for a good Doctor Who is a strong set of characters, decent villains and a strong performance by the lead. By now, you kind of know what you’re getting with Jon Pertwee, there is little variation in his performances but they’re always good. For a great Doctor Who story you need more, but this has the essentials and no elements, aside from the pacing, particularly let it down. Quite underrated.

Horror quotient – The Guardian, perhaps? Or the primitives in general. I’m never going to be scared.
Comedy quotient – Mac Hulke is generally a non-comedic writer. Under his pen, Pertwee’s Doctor came into form as one of the most serious and that trend continues here. The comedy is subtle and limited to the odd line.
Drama quotient – The subplot of Jo’s introduction to life in the TARDIS disappears after the first couple of scenes, which is a big disappointment. Again, apart from the odd scene, there isn’t much drama to get out of the colony plot, and even less from the Master’s latest diabolical scheme. I expected more from the writer of the finest Pertwee story yet.

A story which benefits greatly from being watched in a marathon, Colony in Space doesn’t have much to offer the casual viewer but it’s unfairly maligned. If there’s a more exciting story to be told about an argument over who gets to own a quarry I’d like to see it.


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